Throughout history, the primary function of art has been to represent the world as we see it. It has been a way to cheat the relentless forward march of time and hang on to an image that does not age or fade away (well, at least not as quickly as humans do). We have painted ourselves more than any other subject as a way to stay young forever, so that our descendants might see us as we were in our prime. We have also shown an interest in capturing other subjects to remember them at particular moments in time -- with a still life, a bouquet of June roses can grace the dining room on the darkest winter day. For centuries, this was the function of painting and sculpture. And then something came along that changed everything.
The camera was invented, and suddenly, with the click of a button -- it was a bit more complicated in the early days of photography, but relatively simple compared to painting a picture -- you could have an accurate, detailed portrait. When he saw his first daguerreotype, the painter Paul Delaroche exclaimed, "From this day, painting is dead."
Nearly 170 years later, painting is most assuredly alive and kicking and likely to remain so, but the invention of photography certainly brought about a reevaluation of art and its function. Perhaps the greatest step was the realization that an artist, unlike a photographer, was not limited to reality. While photography can, arguably, produce a more accurate image of what is there, an artist can paint what isn't there, and this is the driving force behind Nina Groth's show, Sojourn, that opened at the beginning of this month at the First Street Gallery in Eureka.
"This show is about the Mystery," the artist explains. "It's what we don't see in this life but we feel, viscerally. Those things that we experience that are unseen, and I tried to give it some imagery." A monumental task, really. A painter trying to give shape to that which cannot be seen? Where does one start? One thing is clear: You couldn't approach the topic with a camera.
If you talked with Nina for a little while, you'd quickly realize that this is just the sort of challenge for her, as an artist and as a philosopher. Deep thinking and reading has been a way of life for her from childhood, and the paintings in this show are really not just the product of her last four years of work, but a lifetime of questing.
The exhibit presents a series of paintings in chronological order that tell a story. The title cards include the text of the story to accompany each painting, which the viewer can read or not, depending on their preference. Apart from the words, the artist skillfully uses shapes, colors and symbolic meanings to convey her message.
In the first painting, the two main characters of the story are introduced as Night Bird, who is a guide, and the feminine form who represents all those, male or female, who seek a deeper understanding. We are also introduced to several of the shapes that will recur throughout the series; the orb representing inner strength, the arc that protects the feminine form on her journey, and the crosshatching that can represent chaos and obstacles, as well as opportunity. Black is also the most dominant color in the first painting, symbolizing the unseeable nature of mystery, but in the final painting of the series, as the mystery is revealed, black is absent.
With a difficult topic like this, the images in the series could easily have been trite, or even ridiculous, but Nina Groth has worked for many years on developing her ability to convey intangible subjects on paper, and her technical abilities are only the starting point. Her knowledge of symbols and the use of color are her tools, but it is her own searching mind, humor and love of life that infuse the paintings with meaning. The result is a series of paintings that are as accessible as they are insightful. While a full understanding of the concepts might take a lifetime, anyone can enjoy the images and relate them to their own experiences. Indeed, this show would be one to share with young children, who would appreciate the storytelling style and vivid colors.
In the end, these paintings should not be viewed merely as a treatise on the meaning of life. They are an invitation to all of us to explore the mysteries of life and imagine our own concept of what they may look like. What is it that inspires us to song, or brings us closer to our children? What is it that draws us to a beautiful flower, and why is the sight of one so important? Why are we here? Is there more to life than we can see? Nina Groth has not done the work for us; she has only done it for herself. We can enjoy her vision, but ultimately, we must each find our own.
Sojourn will be on exhibit through Dec. 23, at the First Street Gallery, 422 First Street, Eureka. You can also see the images and read the accompanying text on the Gallery's website, www.humboldt.edu/~first, which is nice, but will not be nearly as rich an experience as going to see the show first hand.